Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Faith and evidence

Many skeptics make the claim that faith in the sense used by believers means “to believe with no evidence”, or even “to believe in the teeth of evidence.” This is the position espoused by Richard Dawkins and others. Many Christians have responded to this statement by citing theologians down through history. This view of faith is definitely not the view of most theologians in the history of the church. Nevertheless, it does seem to be the view of some Christians, perhaps even many Christians today.

Once I was teaching a class on apologetics in a church Sunday school class. I was presenting the idea that faith is actually belief that is based on adequate evidence. One gentleman made this comment: “I can see what you’re saying about faith and evidence. I mean, even if you have 95 percent evidence, you still have 5 percent faith.”

Unfortunately, this gentleman didn’t get the point at all. In his mind, faith was still the part of our belief that didn’t have evidence to support it. But in that case, the more evidence you have, the less faith you have. Thus, the best way to increase your faith is to reduce the amount of evidence you have to support your beliefs! In that case, apologetics is not only unhelpful, it’s absolutely destructive to faith. The more evidence you have, the less faith. But is this view correct?

Consider Luke’s introduction to his Gospel. He writes,

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

If anything is clear from Luke’s opening remarks here, it’s that he intended for his historical research to be a help to strengthen the faith of his reader. Many scholars note that the name Theophilus means “lover of God,” so it’s possible Luke was writing his books (Luke and Acts) as a generic treatise to believers. But whether Luke intended his books for one person or many, the fact is that for Luke the historical evidence handed down by eyewitnesses was of crucial importance in “knowing the certainty of the things” believers have been taught. This is not a blind faith at all, nor is it the case that more evidence equals less faith. On the contrary, stronger evidence gives stronger certainty of the truth of the Gospel message.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why Eastern Europe needs the Gospel

Some years ago when we were living in Hungary I came across a study that surveyed people from every major region of the world to assess how happy or unhappy they were with life. Eastern Europe turned out to be the region with the unhappiest people in the entire world. That's not a surprise for those of us who have lived in that part of the world and are familiar with its history and culture. It wasn't that long ago that Hungary, for example, had the highest per capita rate of suicide in the world. While things have improved somewhat in that regard, Hungary still ranks 5th or 6th in the world for suicide these days.

Today, however, I came across this video by Reuters on a study of the unhappiest nations in Europe. Out of 19 European nations, only Russia and Bulgaria were ranked as being more unhappy than Hungarians.

But what makes Hungarians so unhappy? Is it their economy? While it's true that Hungary's economy has struggled in recent years, even drawing comparisons last week to Iceland (which was on the verge of bankruptcy until the IMF stepped in), I don't think that's the reason. After all, there are places which are much poorer than Hungary but where people are much happier. My first ever missions experience was in the Philippines. I visited many very poor people there, but in general I noticed that their level of happiness seemed to be higher than in North America. If suicide rates are any indicator Filipinos, with one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, are happier than North Americans. Why?

In my non-expert, unprofessional opinion, it's because relationships are so important to Filipinos. The family unit is still largely intact, and is of central importance to the Filipino culture and way of life. Latin Americans also have much lower rates of suicide than North Americans, yet these are generally nations which are much, much poorer than North America and Western Europe, and even poorer than the perennially depressed Eastern Europeans. But relationships in Hungary are fractured. The family unit is broken and fragmented. Even today the cultural decimation caused by decades of communist rule is still evident. The book by James Michener, The Bridge at Andau, gave a shocking portrait of life in Hungary under communism. People couldn't trust their next-door neighbor, and life was ruled by fear of the government. And while Hungary became a free country in 1991, the fragmented culture never fully healed. My own experience with Hungarian families is that the only healthy ones are ones where the whole family is committed to Christ. It's a rare thing in Hungary to be sure. Many Hungarians call themselves Christians (as do many Americans), but have not experienced the healing and reconciling power of the Gospel in their lives.

Eastern Europe doesn't need more religion, but it does need the Gospel.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Should Christians do apologetics?

Some Christians eschew evidence-based apologetics. They reason that if our faith is based on, say, historical evidence and other evidence turns up that casts our historical conclusions into question, then our faith may be weakened or destroyed. Indeed there are some anti-apologists who say they used to be Christians but lost their faith because of contrary evidence.

There are several reasons why I find this thinking problematic. First of all, if our faith is not based on evidence for the truth claims of Christianity then what is it based on? Our own subjective feelings? Certainly subjective considerations have a lot to do with belief (regardless of what one believes), but I don’t see how this makes a better foundation for faith than arguments based on evidence and sound application of logic and reason. Feelings can change. Likewise if our own experience is the basis for our faith, that can be outweighed by other experiences (or perhaps by arguments that call our experiences into question).

Second, in every case that I’m familiar with of Christians who have lost their faith, there were significant factors at play other than strictly evidence-based arguments against Christianity. Often it’s the case that Christians lose their faith because of some personal crisis where they doubt whether God is really watching out for them. It starts with a loss of trust in God and then proceeds to full-blown apostasy, perhaps aided by skeptical arguments. But the arguments themselves are not terribly persuasive based strictly on their merits.

Third, my own experience of studying historical apologetics has always had the result of strengthening rather than weakening my faith. In particular, my study of arguments for and against the Resurrection has shown the weakness of the skeptical position very clearly to me. The striking thing is the lack of any coherent explanation for the evidence from the skeptical side. The traditional skeptical arguments have been shown to be full of holes. The evidence is too early for it to have been the result of legendary accretion, even though that’s usually the leading theory these days. There’s also no evidence for any development of the belief in the Resurrection – it appeared very suddenly and very early, serving as the foundation of the beliefs of the early Christians. Other skeptical theories have been repudiated time and again, including theories such as that the disciples hallucinated Jesus’ appearances to them, that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross but revived in the tomb and managed to escape, that the women went to the wrong tomb, or that the disciples made the whole thing up and hoodwinked a gullible Jewish audience.

N.T. Wright says he sent the manuscript of his impressive tome, The Resurrection of the Son of God, to his former tutor at Oxford, an atheist. The tutor said, “you’ve made a very impressive argument. But I simply choose to believe that there is some natural explanation for this other than Jesus rising from the dead.” Ultimately the skeptic falls back on the argument that says, “there must be some natural explanation for it.” But that, of course, is simply an assumption on the part of the skeptic. If all options are on the table including the supernatural one, the superiority of it is clearly demonstrated.

Thus I see no reason for Christians not to engage in historical, evidential apologetics, and many good reasons to do so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Apologetics and holiness

Apologetics, for those of you who don’t know this about me yet, is my favorite area of theology. Apologetics has to do with defending the truth of the Christian worldview. It’s an essential area for believers to study. What is true and what is not is of fundamental importance in answering the big questions of life.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible related to apologetics is this one from 1 Peter 3:15:

But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.

The word for apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which is translated as "defense" in this verse. It's the word that was used for legal defenses in a court of law. So this verse calls us to be prepared to defend the Gospel by giving sound arguments or reasons for our hope. You don't have to be an apologetics expert to do this, but some basic training in this area definitely helps, especially given the skeptical world that we live in.

Often when I use this verse in teaching, I tend to gloss over the first part, "sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts." It means to make Christ the Lord of our lives in our own heart. In other words, it means to make sure that our heart is right with God, and that our spiritual walk is right with Him. This is the essential first part of apologetics. Our words are of little value if our lives do not reflect the lordship of Christ in our behavior and attitudes. This is not a one-time thing, but a daily surrender to Christ's lordship. If we fail at this step we will fail altogether, no matter how good our arguments are.

I've been hearing about some former evangelical Christian scholars and even former apologists who have fallen away from the faith and are now fighting against Christianity. When listening to their stories, I believe they all failed at the first step above. It wasn't that they encountered arguments for atheism that were so irrefutable that they were compelled to lose their faith by force of reason. In fact, the former apologists that I've heard don't have any better arguments against the Gospel than any run-of-the-mill skeptic. But in one case, a former Christian apologist who was the pastor of an evangelical church fell into an adulterous relationship with a woman in his church. When he finally confessed, the church was (understandably I think) quite upset by it. He became bitter because of their response to him and, to make a long story short, he eventually divorced his wife and became an anti-apologist against Christianity. He had failed to live a life that was surrendered to the lordship of Christ even though he may have been good at apologetics.

Good apologetics doesn't start with good arguments, but rather with a surrendered life that is lived under the lordship of Christ. We do need good arguments, and we do need to have some idea of how to respond to skeptics (though I often struggle with being both “gentle” and “respectful”, which is something that we also need to be careful to do). But first and foremost we need to be people of holiness, people who are living in constant, daily communion with Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Resurrection and good works

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

1 Cor. 15:58

One of the easiest rules of Bible interpretation to remember is this one: whenever you see a “therefore” you have to ask what it’s there for. Whatever precedes the word “therefore” justifies whatever comes after it. In this case, Paul has given an extensive discussion of resurrection – first, of Christ’s resurrection, which is the foundation of our faith. He then talks about the future resurrection of believers. Because of this future hope of resurrection he says that we should “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” knowing that our work is not in vain.

The Resurrection is not simply a nice theoretical doctrine. It has an important practical application in motivating faith and good works. It’s not a “pie-in-the-sky by-and-by” theology, but a theology of a future life in which we will be transformed to be like Christ in his resurrected life. As one of my former seminary professors has said, we will be “bulletproof”. The historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of our own future resurrection. This is not an imaginary hope; it’s as real as it gets.

Theologian N.T. Wright calls this future hope “life AFTER life after death”. We often talk of “life after death”, by which we mean the immediate state that we enter after death. There is such a state (and I plan to do more blogging on the research into this through the study of “near-death experiences”), but this is not the final state for believers. It is a temporary one in which we await the final resurrected state that Paul talks about.

Some Christian theology is based on a future state of a disembodied existence in heaven. This is not the biblical view. The Resurrection of Jesus happened in the physical world. Our future resurrection will likewise be in the physical world, not in a spiritual world in which we float around on clouds strumming harps. The accusation of Christians as being “too spiritually minded to be of any earthly good” should never be true of us. Just as our future hope is a real hope, our good works should be real and visible to the world. God calls us to live lives characterized by good works, lives that stand out from the world by their quality. If that can’t be said of our lives, then something is wrong.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Give us a sign!

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Matt. 12:38-39

The Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted a sign from Jesus to prove to them that he was the Messiah. Many skeptics today want a miraculous sign for a different reason – to prove to them that God exists and that miracles actually happen. One skeptic I was arguing with said he would believe in God if God turned his grass blue. His reasoning was that it would be a simple enough thing for God to do. If his grass turned blue, he would consider that miraculous. He seemed to feel that God was obligated to meet his demand for proof.

The skeptic presumes that because God wants everyone to believe in him, God should satisfy everyone’s demand for direct, empirical evidence of his existence. But what skeptics don’t seem to understand is that there is more to faith than simply believing that God exists. Faith also involves trust – which is a question of our assessment of God’s character. It’s not enough to simply believe that God exists - faith means putting our trust in him and in his goodness, his love, and his mercy. Many people believe that God exists but do not trust him. Some believe God’s purpose in life is to keep us from having fun, so he gives us restrictive rules. They don’t understand that God’s commands are designed to help us and protect us, to increase our joy rather than decreasing it.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is interesting. He says no miraculous sign would be given to them except for the sign of the prophet Jonah. He explains what he means by that in the next verse: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus is speaking about the Resurrection as the sign they would receive. It’s still the sign that has been given to every generation since that time wherever the Gospel has been preached. It’s a sign that not only reveals that God exists, but also that he “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The Resurrection of the Son of God is our guarantee that we will one day share in the glory of his life if we trust in him.

There is already sufficient proof for the skeptic that God exists. Without God, there is no reason for anything to exist, and thus nothing should exist. The very existence of the cosmos speaks not only to God’s existence, but also to his incredible power, his vast intelligence (if we can even use that term for God), and his creativity. But there is also sufficient proof that Jesus really rose from the dead. There is no natural explanation for the evidence of the early testimony of the first Christians that Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them. It was not a legend, as the written records are much too early for that. All other naturalistic theories have failed – that the disciples made it up, that they were hallucinating, that Jesus didn’t really die but only fainted. None of these theories explain the evidence. The best explanation, the only explanation that really fits the evidence, is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

The question is not what evidence does the skeptic require before he or she will believe. The real question is what will he or she do with the evidence which has already been given.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Baby Jonathan's Dedication

On Sunday we drove up to Rochester to have baby Jonathan dedicated at Gates Wesleyan Church. It's the same church we were married in, so we have a special connection there, although we've never lived in Rochester since we were married. The highlight of the dedication ceremony was when Jonathan grabbed the pastor's nose immediately after being handed to him (unfortunately we have no photo of that)!

It's a good reminder of the responsibility of a Christian parent not only to care for the physical needs of our children, but their spiritual needs as well. When I became a Christian at the age of 19 and went off to Bible college, one of the things that struck me about many of my fellow students was the fact that they didn't seem to have a really clear understanding of their own faith. Most of them had grown up in the church. Unlike me, many of them had no clear before/after testimony of a conversion experience. I had gone from partying and doing drugs to being a Bible college student within a month. Some of the other students were still partying and doing drugs (though not the majority thankfully)!

My reaction was to conclude that it was better to not grow up in the church if you wanted a strong faith - not a comfortable conclusion in my mind. But then I immediately had another thought: one day I might end up having kids, and I certainly wanted my kids to grow up in the church. But I also wanted them to have a strong faith that was their own, and not just something they lamely inherited from their upbringing without much thought given to it. How could this be done?

Now that I have three kids of my own I'm still asking that question. Am I doing enough as a parent to give my kids a strong spiritual foundation? They are certainly getting plenty of exposure to other Christians. But what will happen to their faith when they leave the cocoon? My first answer, of course, is to give them lots of solid apologetics. But beyond that my prayer for my kids is that they will have their own vital experiences with God, such as the experiences I have had that have shaped my life and my faith in so many ways. Good theology is one thing, but encountering the presence of God firsthand is when lasting life change really takes place.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Resurrection and Missions

What does the Resurrection have to do with missions? Everything! As Paul proclaimed to the philosophers in Athens,

Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-- an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Acts 17:29-31

The important message that Paul is driving home here is God's command, which is "to all people everywhere." That message is a fairly simple one: repent. It's the same message that Jesus preached himself, "repent, for the kindgom of heaven is near." The fundamental Gospel message has to do with repentance, with turning back to God and away from living according to our own desires. It means being reconciled to God through the forgiveness of sins. But how do we know this message is true out of all of the conflicting messages that claim to be from God?

The answer to that (if you haven't already guessed it) is the Resurrection itself. Paul says the Resurrection is the proof that God has given that this message is the truth. No other purported message from God comes with this kind of empirical test of its veracity. Nothing else even comes close.

But how does God intend to communicate this message of repentance to all people everywhere? The answer is, of course, through missions, and through the preaching of missionaries. In Romans 10:13-15 we read:

"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

We must be careful to guard against any idea of missions that takes away from this one fundamental task: to proclaim God's message of repentance and forgiveness through Christ to "all people everywhere." The task of proclaiming God's message to the world has been entrusted to the church. It is a task that we must fufill.

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.